Thursday, May 27, 2010

Dancing with whip-poor-wills: May 15th, 2010

On May 3rd, I received the email with the happy subject, “MMT -- You are in!” Despite running ultras for almost a decade, I had been very slow to tackle the 100 mile distance. I first became aware of the Massanutten Mountain 100 event when Ultrarunnergirl was tweeting updates on the race last year. After suffering through the last 15 miles of Where’s Waldo 100K last August to the refrain of “I’m not going to do a hundred”, I entered the lottery to get into MMT on November 30th. I proceeded to up my mileage significantly starting in December-January, and despite only achieving one 100 mile week, I ran between 50-70 miles 3 weeks out of 4 and ran an ultra every month from January through April. The only problem was that the MMT 100 miler is very popular and awards entries through a lottery which I had not won. Starting in December, I was ~70th on the waiting list for a starting field of 180 and by March had not moved very many places. Convinced that I would not get into MMT, I signed up for the Jemez 50 miler in Los Alamos, New Mexico the week following MMT.

So on May 3rd when I got the email, I was actually torn as to whether I should do MMT or do the Jemez 50 especially since I had already booked flights/hotels for the trip to New Mexico, but had not made any travel preparations for MMT. But then I realized I was the last person to move from the wait list into the race. It was FATE. I HAD to do this race. After all, I had done 50 milers previously, but all my training for the last 5 months was focused on attempting my first 100. So I booked a last minute flight from Seattle, and tried to wrap my head around the course.

The race proceeds clockwise around the Massanutten Mountain ring in the Shenandoah valley which was a homecoming of sorts for me since I grew up in Virginia hiking on the nearby Appalachian Trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The course is known for rocks and repeated climbs. Compared to the west coast ultras I have done, there were many more climbs, albeit shorter ones. Pretty much every aid station was located down off the mountain ridge, which meant every time you left an aid station, you had a big climb! I had no idea how to pace myself over this kind of course so after consulting more experienced 100 mile runners, I decided to take it as easy as possible for the first 20 miles with regular walking breaks for food and liquid intake at least every half hour. Then if I felt good, I would run more consistently but without racing.

The race started promptly at 5am (you can barely see me with the red baseball cap in the photo below at the start) with a 3 mile gradual uphill on a road. It would have been easy to run or even attack this section but I stuck to my strategy of incorporating walking and taking it easy. Keith Dunn was at the 3.1 mile aid station where I refilled my water bottles and headed onto the first section of single track. Despite the rocks and the climb up Short Mountain, it felt great to be on single track.
Photo by Bobby Gill

At Woodstock aid station I congratulated Mark McKennett on his impressive MMT haircut and headed out for the first (only) section between aid stations without a significant climb. Somewhere around this point I got to meet Susan Donnelly as she swept easily past me and offered some tips for my first 100. I did not see her again until the finish line and am looking forward to reading her race report. My first drop bag was at Elizabeth Furnace and I re-stocked on GUs and Nuun and went on. So far I had been very happy with my fueling, having managed to eat a GU or half a Lara bar every 30 minutes. For the first time at this ultra, I decided not to force myself to eat breakfast and I think that worked out well. I had a snack instead of a whole breakfast, but then started fueling every 30 minutes from the very beginning. Having no idea what pace I would maintain during the race, I had written out splits for 36 hours (cutoff pace, and my primary goal of finishing), 32 hours (wishful thinking) and 28 hours (fantasyland). Since I was in the Stonewall Jackson division (no crew or pacer) I had placed my headlamp in the drop bag at Veach Gap since the cutoff here was 8pm. I reached Veach gap around 3pm which made me realize I was way ahead of schedule. I never actually did look at any of the splits which I had written down. I also started my Garmin 310XT at this aid station since its battery life is around 18 hours and I had decided I would rather be able to track mileage at the end of the race rather than the beginning. Ultrarunnergirl was helping out at Veach gap and it was nice to meet the person responsible for so many fun running tweets.

I got to Camp Roosevelt just as it was getting dark and spent a fair bit of time with my drop bagging changing shirt, shoes/socks, and hydration system (from fuel belt to hydration pack). A couple of quesadillas hit the spot and I was off to climb the next hill. Reaching Gap Creek for the first time led to the worst section of the race for me. As with almost every aid station, a substantial climb followed, but this one never seemed to reach a somewhat level or runnable ridge top the way most sections had. In addition my stomach felt a little off for the first time. I was moving so slowly that I was falling asleep on my feet and it is surprising that the rocks (particularly abundant in this section) did not exact their revenge on me. I was surprised to find several runners sitting or lying by the side of the trail in this section. Maybe naps are more common than I realized in 100 mile events. Finally the trail started down and the ability to really run got me awake again.

I begin drinking Coke at all the aid stations after this in an attempt to stay awake. A brief rain shower around 3:30am helped wake me up as well. Much sooner than I would have expected, light begin creeping across the landscape which led to the dance of the whip-poor-wills. I still had my headlight on and two orange eyes gleamed out at me from the trail. The size of the creature seemed too small for the eyes, and as I approached, the creature dispersed as two whip-poor-wills flew a short distance away only to land in the path and stare me down again. This continued for quite some time and I can only think they were having fun playing with the light from my headlamp but whatever the cause, it seemed like a good omen to have them dancing with me down the trail.

When I had reviewed the information about the course on the web site, I had been a little put off when I noticed that 18 miles were on dirt roads. By this point in the course, however, I was rejoicing every time a dirt road appeared since there would be no Massanutten rocks to avoid and I could actually run! I was surprised to still be running at this point in the race and am still not sure how I maintained good energy throughout this race. Whether it was training, starting out easy, eating/hydrating well, or all combined I was just grateful. And already scared that I won’t find this magic combination at subsequent events!

I returned to Gap Creek for the second time and was too stoked by reaching the last aid station to even stop. After a steep climb and rocky trail descent that reduced me to more or less walking, the trail evened out a bit and I was able to run before finally the trail emptied out on a downhill road section where I ran the fastest 2-3 miles of the event before reaching the final 0.8 miles of trail which included a final uphill section. By this point I was so delirious that I even ran the uphill section. I could taste the finish! Ultrajumper was at the finish line to capture this happy picture and I was done! The eggs at the finish line were some of the best I ever had and a nice person even gave me a ride back to my car to save some of the 0.8 mile walk.
Photo by Bobby Gill

First 40 miles pace: 14.6 min/mile
Middle 30 miles pace: 16.9 min/mile
Final 30 miles pace: 17.8 min/mile

As you can tell from the race report, this event could have been a tweet-up, as I met many people who I had previously only known through twitter. The course marking was incredible as I usually get off-course at least once, but I never had any problems following this course. The volunteers and race staff really know how to put on a great event and I hope to run MMT again one of these days.

Other race reports:

Olga Varlamova's report

Brittany Zales report on volunteering at Camp Roosevelt